Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Man Who Was Friday (2) Berlin, London, Odessa and Home

MARX Memorial Library in Clerkenwell Green. In 1902-3, it housed the presses which printed ISKRA. Lenin had an office on the premises. Osip Tarshis, alias Piatnitsky, despatched the revolutionary paper to Russia.

City lights, a new name, and a new trade

Young Osip, from Wilkomir in Lithuania, had escaped a Russian prison, and now he arrived in Germany. In Berlin, the small-town boy was dazzled by the traffic and the bright lights. He rode on trams and gazed in shop windows. At a meeting place, he 'saw the well-dressed gentlemen sitting around small tables drinking their beer, and thought it was a bourgeois gathering, for I had never seen such workers in Russia. It proved to be a Party meeting.'

He was impressed by the German unions, the party bookstores and printing presses. In Berlin he acqired a new name. Perhaps it was the day he arrived. The lady of the house, not wanting visitors to know who was staying, called him Mikhail Davidovich Freitag. The Russian for Friday is Piatnitsa. Somehow it stuck, so comrade Tarshis became better known in the movement as Osip Aaronovich Piatnitsky.

Piatnitsky also came to London, where the Social Democratic Labour Party of Russia was to reconvene its Second Congress. He stayed with Martov, Vera Zasulich and others, and had meals with Lenin and Krupskaya. The winter fogs and grime of the city depressed him. He was surprised to meet people from the old country who had turned from socialism to 'individualist anarchism'. Osip put this down to their exile from home and exclusion from British society and its labour movement.

Iskra was being printed on the presses of the Social Democratic Federation in Clerkenwell. It was Piatnitsky's job to find ways of despatching the paper back to those waiting back home. The Bund's network delivered the first issues of Lenin's Iskra into Russia (later in 1905 the Bolsheviks in St. Petersburg were surprised to receive a consignment of Bund publications. A German worker dispatching the parcels had just assumed the more the merrier, and sent whatever he had).

In Tilsit, Piatnitsky found a group of Lithuanians sending large quantities of religious literature home; this was banned by the Czarist regime because it was in the Lithuanian language. Religious dissenters and Marxists were able to collaborate in adversity, so Marxist pamphlets were smuggled in the same crates as devotional works.

The revolutionaries used suitcases with false bottoms, and devised garments - waistcoats for men and bodices or skirts for women - into which newspapers were sewn. People swore in the Summer heat, but were all right in winter. Some even regretted parting with their garments, asserts Piatnitsky, the ladies' tailor, proudly: 'The women got used to them - they made them look impressive, dignified, with good round figures.'

The 1903 congress saw the Bund's delegates walk out when its status was not recognised as 'representative of the Jewish proletariat'. It ended with the split between the 'Bolshevik' and Menshevik' factions over what constituted party membership. Lenin lost control of Iskra. Piatnitsky was bewildered when the older theoretician Plekhanov turned against Lenin, and was upset to part with comrades he had admired; but he chose to go with the Bolsheviks.

The Battles in Odessa

In 1905 theoretical debate was jostled aside by real revolution. Arriving in Odessa that summer, Piatnitsky found party organisation was built from the top, on the principle of co-option. There were committees of Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, the Bund, the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Dashnaks (an Armenian party), each working separately. But at the end of August someone began moves for a joint meeting. "I think it was the Bund ... organisationally they stood closer to the Mensheviks, but on many tactical questions of the period the Odessa Bund sided with us."

Not content with having massacred demonstrators on the Odessa steps, the Czarist regime wanted its revenge for the strikes, the Potemkin battleship mutiny, and the revolutionary ferment in Odessa. In October, along with the Czar's manifesto promising reform and national unity, came armed gangs harassing people in Odessa, and an organised pogrom against the Jews. There was a meeting in the university to organise resistance and defence. 'Besides us, the Mensheviks, the Bund group and the Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs), resentatives of the Dashnaks, the Poale Zion and Serpovists attended the meetings of the committee' (Serpovists were members of the Chaim Zhitlovsky's Jewish Socialist Labour Party, and close to the SRs). Piatnitsky was worried that not enough non-Jewish workers showed up.

The Black Hundred pogromists, officers leading peasants, lumpen and criminals alongside plain-clothes police, were backed by Cossacks and well-armed troops. The workers' defence squads were heavily outgunned. On 19th October a detachment of railway workers routed a right-wing gang in the Dalmitsy district, but had to retreat, with heavy losses, when the army intervened. In some places people broke into gun shops for weapons to defend themselves. The battleship Potemkin and its revolutionary sailors had left Odessa, but a detachment of naval cadets fought bravely against the reactionaries, Piatnitsky records.

Still, after three days - the usual time alotted for pogroms by the Czarist authorities -some 800 Jews had been killed in Odessa, hundreds were injured or raped, and thousands were burned out of their homes.

The strikes resumed on a bigger scale in December. Under pressure from the rank and file for unity, an Odessa soviet was formed with elected delegates, like that in St Petersburg. The executive met in tearooms run by the Bund and other organisations, but had to keep on the move. In January 1906, Piatnitsky and others were arrested. Released after a hunger strike, but still depressed over the pogrom, and feeling that the movement in Odessa was ebbing, he accepted a call from Moscow to come and help the party press.

On his way, he made a diversion to his home town to visit family and friends. Wilkomir, awakened by the great events elsewhere, was not yet touched by the tide of repression. There were public meetings in the park. The Bund had a children's section - the Little Bund. There was a branch of the Social Democratic Labour Party with Russian, Lithuanian, Polish and Jewish members.

In Moscow, the workers still seemed to be in fighting mood. The party was working with students and producing a paper for soldiers. At holiday times, Moscow workers returning to their villages took political literature for the peasants. Piatnitsky organised printing, obtained paper and arranged distribution. But when police raided the printing works and people's flats he realised they had full details of who they were looking for, including his real name, which he had almost forgotten himself.

Leaving Moscow to shake off spies before going abroad, Osip returned to Wilkomir in May 1908. His home town was now an occupied country. Mounted police were dragging in Lithuanian peasants for interrogation. Even the Bund was lying low. He had been home 10 days when he was arrested. His mother arrived and he feared she would blurt out his name, but she kept quiet as he was taken away.

The prison was crowded with Lithuanians, Poles and Jews. Police officers boasted about flogging and torturing peasants, and showed him a blood-stained cell. Piatnitsky, using another pseudonym, 'Pokenansky', was anxious that they should not find out who he really was or where he had been, and trace his contacts. They hauled him in front of some old Lithuanians and asked if this fellow was really Pokenansky. The old men swore he was, they would recognise him anywhere, he looked just like his father who had gone to America. Osip had never met them before in his life, but their testimony saved him.

1 comment:

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